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The name Daphne Du Maurier may not be familiar to modern audiences, but she was the author responsible for many cinematic classics. Besides penning My Cousin Rachel, she was the brilliantly twisted mind behind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds. She is one of the most celebrated English authors of the 20th century and is being reintroduced to a new generation of fans of period mysteries. It is understandable why director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on the Hudson) would choose to remake the 1952 Henry Koster film. With Rachel Weisz playing the enigmatic femme fatale, the story and her character is too tantalizing for any director to pass up.
Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin) has been raised by his uncle Ambrose Ashley since the death of his parents at a young age. Their existence in the countryside of England breeds a certain masculinity and loyalty that makes Ambrose’s illness and needed retreat to the seaside of Italy difficult for the young country gentleman. Then when Philip hears of the death of his mentor and that the circumstances around his passing are suspicious, he decides he must investigate. He finds that Ambrose had married Rachel (Weisz) while in Europe and that she may have been the one behind his demise. When she arrives at the doorstep of young Philip, his initial reaction is to enact his own version of revenge. Then he is taken aback by her beauty and her enticing demeanor which leads to a decision to pursue her as opposed to rejecting her, but is this the best thing for his mental and physical health?
This film is a fascinating combination of genres and may satisfy the appetites of the Jane Austin crowd, as well as the those who love a good murder/mystery. For fans of the rolling countryside and contemplative dialogue, Du Maurier’s writing style provides all of the trappings that are expected in the drama, romance and tension of this era. The beautifully twisted relationships and the world of the country gentleman is a marvelous stage for the performances of Weisz and Claflin. The Academy Award-winning actress shows her ability to take on any role and make it her’s. Claflin goes from strength to strength, from his excellent performance in Thier Finest to this period piece, he is proving to be more than a pretty face. Reminiscent of the scenario in Far from the Madding Crowd, where a seemingly strong character gets seduced into unbelievable circumstances that affect everyone within their relational orbit, Du Maurier’s version provides the passion with mysterious undertones that add a slight tension to the whole story.
The curious death of Ambrose Ashley provides the catalyst for another level of dramatic strain. Outside of the relational hurdles throughout the journey, this linchpin element is what will ensure audiences will be continually uneasy from the beginning to the end. Claflin’s haunting narration sets the tone for the film and delivers enough concern for the well-being of his character to hold onto the end. Weisz proves to strike the balance between seductress and nobility that makes it difficult to determine her true intentions. This continual tension gives a potentially dull script the energy that is needed to keep the hearts of the audience throughout the journey.
Between the performances of the central characters and well-crafted storyline, My Cousin Rachel is a disturbingly fascinating gem that proves why this novel has stood the test of time.